Will We Be Social Distancing Until 2022?

Social Distancing

Desperate for income, worried about bills and eager to get back to their normal lives, most people are appalled by the mere thought of extended quarantine.

But it seems likely that the ‘new normal’ will include some form of social distancing for months or even years to come, as lockdown restraints are gradually phased out.

Can science predict the future?

With so little known about coronavirus and its longer-term effects, researchers from the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard have been running computer simulations modelling the ways that this pandemic could progress.

Although their findings show that testing, contact tracing and strict compliance with social distancing rules could curtail the spread of COVID-19, these researchers feel that this is unlikely, with more than two million confirmed cases worldwide so far.

They foresee that coronavirus is here to stay, with seasonal outbreaks that could impose some kind of social distancing for months if not years, until a vaccine proves successful.

This is because second or even third spikes of infection could occur if all lockdown restraints are lifted at the same time, instead of in carefully coordinated stages.

Worse still, the virus could mutate.

Learning from the past

This was what happened with the 1918 pandemic, when so-called Spanish flu killed anywhere from 18 to 100 million victims, most of them during a second wave in late 1918.

The first wave was not particularly virulent, with three-day fevers and mortality rates similar to seasonal flu recorded during the first few months of the year.

But the mutated version was far more deadly, killing healthy young people within 24 hours throughout the fall months. Still with an appallingly high mortality rate, the third wave erupted in January 1919.

However, with no returning troops carrying the virus home with them, global deaths were lower than the apocalyptic losses of the previous months.

First spike?

By late April, there were more than 40,000 deaths and around 800,000 cases in the USA, with signs of infection rates dropping in some places.

As a result, a few States are starting to reopen public areas like parks and beaches, while also easing constraints on some small businesses.

However, most of the country is still under some kind of shelter-in-place order.

Obviously, social distancing is almost impossible in a capitalistic society running full speed ahead.

Production lines and distribution centers need people working in close proximity to boost outputs.

Stores and malls thrive only with prosperous crowds, together with churches, stadiums, festivals and other mass attractions.

From kindergarten to university, profits come only from classrooms packed with students.

But what can be done to avoid a second and even a third surge of infections?

Some businesses may well extend working-from-home routines for months to come, even if only part-time, as staggered working hours reduce rush-hour pressures on public transportation, with fewer traffic jams and lighter demands on peripheral services like lunchtime eateries.

And although there are no definitive studies on whether masks really protect their wearers, it is becoming clear that they can lower infection rates among others, especially when effective physical distancing is not possible in crowded public places.

Is ‘Liberate’ the answer?

With unemployment claims topping 22 million, demonstrations calling for the removal of all constraints occurred in over a dozen States, headed by both Republican and Democratic Governors.

The size of these protests has varied widely, from a few dozen in Virginia and Oregon to thousands in Michigan and Washington States.

Similar gatherings in the hundreds took place in Idaho, Maryland and Texas, while protesters in Arizona gridlocked their cars around the capitol building in Phoenix.

In a headlined counter-protest, a few healthcare workers in scrubs blocked protesters at a crossroads in Colorado.

Meanwhile, President Trump and his COVID-19 task force have expressed apparently conflicting views on moving out of social and economic lockdown.

The official position recommends a three-phase process, with each stage lasting at least two weeks, supported by testing, contact tracing and some social distancing.

Nevertheless, many senior politicians agree with US public health experts, stressing the importance of social distancing and justifying the steps challenged by protesters.

Even Facebook weighed in on this issue, announcing that all anti-lockdown protest listings in California, New Jersey and Nebraska would be removed, as they violated State Government orders.

Majority still uneasy

Although these protests clearly reflect the concerns of some Americans, especially in more rural areas, they do not mirror overall public opinion, despite President Trump’s warning that the cure cannot be worse than the disease itself.

A recent Pew Research Centre survey found only 32% of Americans are worried that restrictions will not be lifted soon enough.

However, 66% of them expressed concern about restraints being lifted too quickly, particularly as most of the USA (regardless of party affiliations) believes that the pandemic has not yet peaked.

Almost seven out of every ten voters say that delaying presidential primaries was a necessary step, with a similar percentage feeling uncomfortable about going to a polling station to cast their votes.

Here to stay?

Officially known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), nobody knows how this new virus behaves in human beings.

But based on other coronaviruses, experts believe that immunity may last for anywhere up to a year.

This is why antibody tests that are just beginning will be crucial for identifying infected people who have recovered, while a vaccine – the ultimate weapon – is still some way down the pipeline.

Until then, social distancing  of some kind or another still seems the best way of controlling the spread of infection.

It seems likely that quarantine will remain in place for the most vulnerable segments (the elderly, people with chronic conditions and the immune-suppressed).

Meanwhile, antibody testing will help get people back into the workplace, particularly as definitions of essential businesses become less stringent.

However, other types of distancing may well remain in place by choice.

Instead of elbowing into a packed elevator, people may now prefer to wait for the next car.

Shaking hands and even friendly hugs can easily be replaced by smiles and gestures.

For better or worse, it seems likely that some kind of social distancing will be part of our ‘new normal’ for months and maybe even for years to come.